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BOOK REVIEW : Twisted Lives of Isolated People

November 16, 1989|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

Ordinary Love & Good Will: Two Novellas by Jane Smiley (Alfred A. Knopf: $17.95; 197 pages)

The human male is a brilliant but fatally overspecialized creature; a whippet whose slender legs slash on a race track and dislocate on roads; a jet fighter that flies faster, evades smarter, shoots down five supersonic foes at once, prepares gourmet lunches for the pilot, and costs so much as to wipe out the entire national budget for health care.

The female, outgrowing her initial gullibility, sidesteps, dumps, and starts over again; sinewy and reduced, and living in a depleted world, but the only one left.

The same doleful evolutionary message lies at or near the heart of both of Jane Smiley's novellas. They are not otherwise alike. One is told by the woman, agile but weary; the other by the man, beached and leached out, and with a tardy beginning of self awareness. Both are written with such shrewdness and force as to seem like full-length novels. In their compression, they slightly overheat, but no matter. Smiley is an explorer who presses on to discover places we would rather did not exist.

"Good Will" takes a classic theme and bends it up into Smiley's contemporary purposes. As with any fine writer, they become our purposes too. She has written one man's Utopia; like all Utopias, it breeds its own demons.

Robert Miller has brought Liz, his wife, and his young son, Tommy, into a perfect whole-grain, back-to-nature life. On their 60 beautiful Pennsylvania acres they grow their own food, spin their own wool, make their own cloth. An exquisite craftsman, he makes all the furniture using old tools. They have no electricity and, of course, no phone or television; they have no car and walk everywhere. Tommy takes the school bus, though Robert would like him to be taught at home.

From the beginning, in Robert's voice, we hear the fair and judicious tyrant. He is suffocatingly high-minded but he is speaking out of catastrophe, and there is a ghost of chastening that becomes more vociferous as he goes along.

Liz is his full partner; seemingly, as whole-hearted as he in rejecting the artificial consolations of society. So, seemingly, is Tommy. And then disquieting reports come in. He has cut off the heads of two dolls belonging to the only black child in his class. Later, he rips her coat to pieces.

It is an unthinkable intrusion of the savage. There is a shrewd message here. If you reject society and go back to primitive simplicity, what can you expect? These two sophisticated parents have bred a redneck child. Exploring his shock, Robert reflects that Tommy had never seen a black person. "Suddenly our little boy's life, which we always think of as nestled into ours, even partaking somehow of what we did and saw before him, appears to us as it must to him, vast, whole."

"It is weird to think that this is all he's ever known," he tells Liz. "Wasn't that the point?" she asks.

She is dry, dispassionate. And when disaster strikes and they have to leave the farm, get jobs and move into an apartment in town, it is she and Tommy who adapt. Robert, floundering, is left to meditate on how his impulse to shape life as an art object amounts to a terrible, solipsistic pride that has corrupted life itself.

"Ordinary Love" is told by the woman. She is 52 and divorced; her five children are grown. Her youngest, Joe, still lives with her. Michael, Joe's twin, is coming home for a visit after two years of teaching in India. His return sends all the family's history, jealousies, needinesses, resentments and love into a jangling resonance.

The emotional details, the transactions and aborted transactions are done with painful perfection. They are too much, perhaps. Every moment is a twinge; every twinge is spoken and, by being spoken, perhaps, enhanced. "I wonder why I pay so much attention to my own feelings," the narrator asks--just in time; perhaps the reader was wondering too.

But this is far more than a comedy of neurotic manners. Pat, the former husband, is the story's center, though he never appears. He too was a monster of perfection; a brilliant scientist, a man of incessant charm, energy and need to control. At dinner each night he wooed his wife and children, Smiley writes.

The narrator had an affair with a neighbor. Then she told her husband and announced that it would go on. It was a gratuitous act. Only bit by bit do we learn why. Only approximately; Smiley never makes the mistake of tying her knots too tight. But the narrator couldn't survive in Pat's airless perfection. And it crumbles; he hits her, sells their house, takes all five children to Europe. She is alone, and painfully learns how to live that way.

What we see, amid the musical nerves of Michael's visit, are children who can never get over what they see as their mother's abandonment. They love her, they keep an eye on her; when she travels, they send her post cards.

To stay would have been to be suffocated. To leave means always to be a hostage to her children's pain; even now, in an adult reunion with love and playfulness as well as injury vibrating along all those exposed nerves.

After their separation, meeting at their lawyers' office, Pat had lunged at her and had to be restrained. She has lived through her solitude and poverty, she has regained her privacy, she is harder, tighter and more efficient. "I was ready for anything, as ferociously attentive as a marten or a mink," she says.

She is stronger than he is, less specialized, more adaptive. Smiley shows how she prevails, but it is in a world in its new ice age.

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